End of an era at Clitheroe book shop

THE final chapter in the 23-year career of Clitheroe booksellers Gordon and Gillian Hill.

Bowdon Books, their shop and gallery in Lowergate, is an Aladdin's cave of rare and elusive volumes.

For proprietors Gordon and Gillian, running the shop and its upstairs textile art gallery has been a labour of love, but one which is drawing to a close. As retirement beckons, they are holding a grand closing down sale until the year end.

"A hobby that got out of hand" is how the couple describe the transition from their "previous lives" to becoming specialist booksellers. Gordon was a social worker, later North West Regional Training Officer for The Children's Society, while Gillian was an Occupational Therapist, but both had grown unsettled in their jobs.

Their real love was collecting books.

Gradually, through getting to know dealers, then dealing a little themselves, they started to learn the trade. A turning point came when Gordon was asked to share a stall with a bookbinder friend at a book fair.

"We took 83 and used it to buy folding bookcases to do more fairs," said Gordon.

By 1989 it was fast becoming a full-time job, so when an inheritance came Gordon's way, the couple decided to buy their first shop.

"We had some excellent advice from a bookseller friend who told us three things," said Gordon. "He told us if you have a shop, make sure you own it; don't expect a lot out of it because you won't get it; and plan to survive for up to four weeks with no income. It was sound advice and it's served us well."

Their first shop, also called Bowdon Books, was in Oswaldtwistle. They started out by buying the entire stock of a closed bookshop and surplus stock from another bookseller to add to their own stock, and over the next few years set about learning the trade, including cataloguing, mailing lists and bigger book fairs.

They were happy years, but in 1996 the M65 motorway extension took a lot of trade from Oswaltwistle and left the Hills considering a move.

"We decided to relocate and combine our home and shop, but it was difficult to find somewhere you could 'trade noisy and live quiet'," said Gordon.

They spent months searching, incuding visits to Clitheroe, before finding two adjoining cottages in Lowergate, at the foot of King Lane, but neither was a shop and both were Grade II-listed.

"We were on our way to Skipton to look at other property, but our hearts weren't in it. We got to the layby at the top of Sawley Brow and pulled in to talk, then turned round and headed for the planning office in Clitheroe," said Gordon. "We've called it 'Fateful Layby' ever since!"

Eventually they got planning permission to convert one of the cottages and live next door, moving to Clitheroe 13 years ago and quickly making friends. Their shop specialises in non-fiction books, particularly on the arts, local history and North West topography, although many other areas are covered.

As well as loving books, Gillian is a talented textile artist, working mostly with felt to create pictures and sculptures.

Through part-time teaching and running workshops, she made contact with many fellow artists so it was a natural progression to open a small gallery above the bookshop. Initially it showcased the work of new and upcoming artists, to give them a start, but latterly has featured Gillian's own work, for which she still takes occasional commissions.

Through their work the couple were closely involved with the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association and founded the annual Ribble Valley Book Fair, at Whalley Abbey, running it for several years themselves.

While in Clitheroe they have also had several memorable customers, including a researcher for Channel 4's "Time Team" programme and someone buying a hard-to-find volume as a present for Betty Boothroyd on her retirement as Speaker of the House of Commons.

In recent years the Internet has had a huge impact on secondhand bookshops, with 40 to 50% closing down. Some charity shops have also opened book-only outlets and, says Gordon, it is now "almost impossible to make a living at it" from a shop-based business with no other outlet. So the Hills are happy to be retiring by choice, rather than being forced out of the trade they love.

"We've traded for over 23 years and never been in the red and never owed anyone. We've had some great years and some great customers."

When they finally shut up shop on December 31st, the couple plan to spend more time pursuing – and in many cases combining – their various interests, including travel, good food and wine, jigsaws, old movies and limerick writing!

Until then the shop will be open as usual from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and, with everything half-price, some real bargains to be found.